Here’s a straw to clutch on to. Anything that annoys or in-conveniences the Premiership’s big four clubs must be at some level a good thing. On the face of it, Michel Platini’s election as the new UEFA president – he defeated the incumbent Lennart Johansson by 27 votes to 23 – comes into that category. One of the main planks of Platini’s campaign was a proposal to cut the maximum number of Champions League qualifiers any country can have to three, beginning with the next TV deal in 2009-10. That Platini explicitly said that he would like to see greater representation for the champions from around eastern Europe probably helped to swing the final vote.
Arsène Wenger led the chorus of disapproval. “I believe that the competition should be organised with the best teams playing each other. What people want to see is the best teams on television, to see Real Madrid against Arsenal, or Milan against Bayern Munich – that will not change.” In this context, of course, “best” means members of the self-perpetuating cartel that such a reorganisation would be looking to break up.
But critics see Platini as a stooge, a camera-friendly mouthpiece. A former UEFA general secretary, Gerhard Aig-ner, was among those sceptical about Platini’s abilities: “I would suggest that at least 20 of those who voted for him have no idea of what managing UEFA means and were seduced by his personality.” That he might simply be a front man for vested interests is an impression that will have been strengthened by the fact that FIFA president Sepp Blatter publicly endorsed Platini on the first day of the UEFA Congress at which the vote was taken, to the consternation of Johansson: “I think he’s wheeling and dealing, having one opinion on Monday and then another on Tuesday.”
Blatter is notorious for suggesting, seemingly off the top of his head, ways by which football might be improved (“He has 40 ideas a day and 41 of them are bad,” as Brian Glanville put it). That Platini seems similarly inclined – he once suggested that tackling, of any kind, ought to be banned – would seem to indicate that the new UEFA president wants to play a direct role in decision-making. Whereas European football, with all its competing vested interests, would probably benefit most from a president prepared to function as an impartial regulator.
Has Blatter simply weakened UEFA as a rival to the world governing body, by helping the installation of a friendly face at the head of the only confederation with the financial clout to challenge FIFA? Or helped create a matching meddler?
Under Johansson, despite an early 1990s stampede that at one point saw many countries’ champions excluded from the top club competition entirely, UEFA did not always side with the big against the small: that move was reversed, the rights of the smaller football nations have been protected at international level and Portugal rather than Spain hosted Euro 2004, for instance. Johansson was a friend to the English game, too, helping end the post-Heysel ban early in his presidency and presiding over the choice of venue for Euro 96.
When it comes to Platini’s attitude to the G-14, it is unwise to fall into the trap of assuming our enemy’s enemy is our friend. It should be remembered that all UEFA negotiations are conducted against the background of the threats of a breakaway club competition. Johansson and co, after introducing the second group stage of the Champions League, riled the top clubs by abolishing it. That is a measure that passed the executive committee; Platini, knowingly or otherwise, may have made a promise he cannot keep, because there may not be enough votes. The G-14 have been skilful in using legislation from outside sport to further their aims.
“I do not think it will change the destiny of the game,” Wenger said of Platini’s plans to rejig the Champions League. There is an argument, alas, that he is right, especially if Platini joins battles he cannot win. But there is political will outside football to work at an agenda focused on social inclusion and also to introduce and enforce youth quotas. Senior European politicians have realised that some elements of the Bosman ruling were not in the wider interest of the game. Indeed only governments, working at European Union level, can balance the power of the G-14. Forging alliances on issues that will receive immediate EU backing could be the key to tackling more contentious issues.
And who knows, maybe Arsène will get to enjoy the UEFA Cup one day, when he is used to it.
From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month